Homegrown fuel

Aug 07, 2023

As the world continues to recover from a global pandemic that exposed America’s dependence on foreign fuels, fertilizers, and other goods and services, new technologies and strategies are emerging quickly. The past three years of upheaval have prompted many Americans to consider different, non-traditional options for accomplishing things that only a few years ago were often taken for granted.

Among these is the production of diesel fuel.

The need for a reliable supply of fuel to power America’s trucks, tractors, farm machinery, and light vehicles is immense. As of the latest statistics, there are more than 15 million commercial vehicles registered in the U.S., and 76% of those are powered by diesel engines. Add to that approximately 7.1 million diesel cars and SUVs on the road during 2021. During that year alone, 317,897 tractors and 6,272 combines were sold according to Successful Farming, nearly all of them running on diesel.

While electric vehicles have seen an explosion of popularity over the past few years, that trend doesn’t easily apply to the world of diesel-powered machinery. However, America’s biodiesel and renewable diesel industry seems positioned to help.

Heather Buechter, director of communications for Clean Fuels Alliance America, says the industry is increasingly making strides to provide the American consumer with clean-burning, affordable fuels while helping the U.S. farmer by creating new sustainable markets for their crops and “feedstocks,” the raw materials used to make biofuels.

“Clean Fuels Alliance America was founded by soybean farmers in the early 1990s,” Buechter explains. “Farmers had excess oil from their soybeans and needed a market to sell it, and biodiesel was born out of that. Our roots as a trade association are founded in farmers, their innovation, and their vision, and we’re funded mainly through their checkoff dollars to continue opening up new markets and adding more value to the bean. Currently, around 70 biodiesel plants are operating in the U.S.”

 Buechter says that 21 new processing plants or expansions to existing plants are planned by 2026. These facilities will be located in 12 different states, would add approximately 650 million bushels of additional crush capacity — equal to almost a billion gallons of additional soybean oil supplies — and reflect a cash investment in rural America of almost $5 billion.

The “Clean Fuels Value Chain” works like this:
1.      The feedstock (crop) is produced and stored either on the farm or offsite. Along with crops like soybeans and corn, these materials include sugars and starches, fibers and grasses, oil, crop residues, manures and organic wastes, and wood and woody biomass.

2.      The feedstock is then sent to a crushing facility where oil is extracted, leaving the meal to be used for other purposes, like livestock feed.

3.      The extracted oils are sent into biodiesel production, often blended with other materials like used cooking grease.

4.      The finished product is shipped to the point of sale.

Biodiesel (B.D.) and renewable diesel (R.D.) are alternative fuels derived from renewable sources, such as the abovementioned feedstocks. The main difference between the two, Buechter says, is in how they are made.
“Biodiesel production is a chemical process, typically using methanol, that changes soybean oil and animal fats into the product,” she says. “R.D., on the other hand, is produced through a process called ‘hydrotreating,’ which is similar to a traditional refinery operation. This method involves subjecting vegetable oils, greases, or animal fats to hydrogenation, which removes impurities like oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur. The resulting renewable diesel has a different chemical composition compared to biodiesel.”

Both fuels can be used in all diesel engines and equipment. B.D. is a “drop-in” fuel typically blended with diesel up to around 20%, while R.D. is viewed more as a diesel replacement and can be used at 100%. The two may also be used together, which is a less expensive option. Combined or not, both B.D. and R.D. burn with up to 86% less carbon emissions than petroleum diesel. A third variation, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), effectively replaces traditional aviation fuel while dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Carl Schultz, a row-crop farmer in Dyersburg and longtime member of Gibson Farmers Cooperative, is a Clean Fuels America Alliance representative for the Tennessee Soybean Promotion Board, as well as president of the Tennessee Corn Growers Association. Schultz says that the increased acceptance of alternative fuels like B.D. and R.D. “just makes sense.”

“When biodiesel first started back in the ‘90s, the quality standards were not very stringent, but today’s technology has become a lot better,” says Schultz, who currently produces 1,300 acres of corn and 1,200 acres of soybeans. “I really believe that the biggest challenge for farmers here in Tennessee is that the progress in the development of these fuels has outpaced the infrastructure. If we could get a crush plant built in this area, farmers would be able to hold their soybeans on the farm and deliver them year-round, which would also help us market our crops at the most advantageous times.”

Schultz points out that there may be future fuel markets in Tennessee’s larger metros like Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville.

“A lot of big cities in other parts of the country are actively moving away from petroleum-based diesel in favor of biofuels for their buses, trash trucks, and other large fleets,” he says. “This is another no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned, and I hope that our nearby Tennessee cities will follow that example.”

Andy Holt, assistant commissioner of business development for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA), says he sees the biofuels industry as a potential boon for Tennessee farmers.

“The desire to put soybean-crushing facilities in the U.S. has really taken off,” says Holt, who also operates a livestock farm near Dresden. “I think that our proximity to the Mississippi River allows us to not only increase the value of beans that are grown in the state, but also those produced out of state that are going to inevitably pass by us on the river. Also, we should make sure that we are adding as much value to that Tennessee soybean before it leaves and goes somewhere else, like China, for example. In many cases, those beans are going to be crushed, and the expressed oil will be used for a lot of different purposes, and we’d like to see that done here.”

The economic impact of the biofuel industry is indisputable and is growing annually. According to Buechter, the U.S. market for biodiesel/renewable diesel supported a total of $23.2 billion in economic impact in the U.S. over the past year. This equates to some 75,000 jobs earning $3.6 billion in wages. The farm sector benefits from 30% of that — around $7.4 billion total, with 28,000 jobs earning $1.3 billion in wages. Specific to soybeans, B.D. and R.D. accounts for 13% of the value of every bushel of U.S. soybeans, which in 2020, was a $6 billion return to American farmers.

In light of the supply chain challenges of the past few years, Buechter says that it’s important to remember that biodiesel/renewable diesel are homegrown fuels.

“We always like to refer to the three E’s: environment, energy security, and economics,” she says. “The benefits are astounding in those areas.”

Holt agrees and adds that agriculture holds the solution to many of our challenges, including national security.
“There’s no such thing as national security for a nation that can’t feed, clothe, and fuel itself,” he points out.

“There’s no doubt that we can feed and clothe ourselves, but traditionally, the Achilles heel for the United States has been our energy needs. The TDA is committed to making sure that we not only educate folks about [the potential of biofuels] but that we also do the actual labor of producing the crops and harvesting the forest residues that can bring this theory to fruition. I think we’re right on the precipice of that actually taking place.”

To learn more about biodiesel, renewable diesel, and sustainable aviation fuel, visit Clean Fuels America Alliance at www.cleanfuels.org.

For more content like this, check out the latest issue of The Cooperator.

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